The Cleveland Browns are set to have five running backs at training camp this year, but the upper part of the depth chart is set in stone without much of a competition expected. In Part 1 of our RB preview, we’ll look at the defined roles for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson.
1. Isaiah Crowell - Starting Running Back
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 225 lbs | Age: 24
Experience: 4 years | College: Alabama State
Although there is a potentially contentious contract situation developing with Crowell, his performance last season makes it clear that he is Hue Jackson’s No. 1 running back heading into 2017. In fact, a few weeks ago, Jackson said that he "beats himself up" over how few touches Crowell got in his first year as the Browns' head coach.
“The guy had almost 1,000 yards a year ago when I didn’t hand him the ball,” Jackson said. “What can he have if I do hand him the ball? ... We have to run the ball more. I will be the first to tell you that. I am a coach that likes to run the ball. ... I think Crowell is poised for a big year. He deserves it.”
Last year, Crowell posted career highs across the board. Starting all 16 games, he logged 198 carries for 952 yards (4.8 YPC) and 7 touchdowns. He also showcased his versatility as a receiver, where he also had career highs in receptions (40) and yards (319). This marks several years now in which Crowell has had pretty good success despite some significant issues on the offensive line. Don’t get me wrong — Crowell has not been flawless, but he’s found ways to overcome rough patches and eventually thrive despite the adversity.
One of Crowell’s best assets has always been yards after contact, where he ranked second in the NFL last year according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). That has led to some big runs on the rare occasion that Cleveland’s offensive line was able to open a hole for him.
The offensive line has been shored up with the signings of center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Left guard Joel Bitonio will be back from injury. With four potentially above average linemen, the right tackle position becomes a bit less of a liability. And if somebody were to get injured, John Greco being the insurance policy offers comfort. The thing I’m most looking forward to on Cleveland’s offense this year is whether Crowell can be a 1,200-yard back. If he can, then not signing a new deal just yet will have paid off, either in Cleveland or somewhere else.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. Duke Johnson - Backup / Pass-Catching RB
Height: 5-9 | Weight: 210 lbs | Age: 23
Experience: 3 years | College: Miami
In his second NFL season, Johnson saw fewer carries than he did as a rookie, but his overall efficiency went up. On 73 carries, he rushed for 358 yards (4.9 YPC). He caught 53 passes for 514 yards, which was on par from his rookie season. Fans may want more, but if we’re thinking about the distribution that the rest of the offense should get, then nearly 900 yards of offense from your No. 2 running back isn’t that bad.
Johnson’s role is also carved out in this offense, and I think that was one of the things I came to appreciate about this duo last year. They both appeared comfortable with their playing time and didn’t feel the need to step on each other’s toes, which was a relief after recent issues with the likes of Peyton Hillis, Ben Tate, and Terrance West.
Regarding Johnson’s strength, it comes via his elusiveness. PFF has an elusive rating that “takes into account not only missed tackles forced by the player, but also how much extra yardage is gained after contact on run plays.” Johnson had the 4th best elusive rating in the NFL in 2016, behind Ty Montgomery, Kenneth Dixon, and Jalen Richard.
Johnson stands out from the rest of the group based on how he made his way into the top-five in elusive rating. He was an above-average runner who ranked outside the top-10 in rush attempts per missed tackle, but was one of the best as a receiver when he had more open space to work with. Johnson’s 21 broken tackles as a receiver were second-most in the league by a running back, behind only David Johnson’s 27. Duke Johnson did so on 53 receptions to give him one of the highest broken tackle rates as a receiver.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
We will look at the rest of the team’s running backs in Part 2 of our RB preview on Wednesday. For now, I’m setting the bar very high for Crowell with Cleveland’s upgraded offensive line and asking whether you think he’ll reach 1,200 yards rushing in 2017.
Last year, only Ezekiel Elliot, Jordan Howard, DeMarco Murray, Jay Ajayi, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and David Johnson rushed for more than 1,200 yards. Will Isaiah Crowell accomplish that feat in 2017?
This poll is closed
Yes -- Crowell will rush for 1,200+ yards
No -- Crowell will rush for less than 1,200 yards